Over the past five years I may have mentioned that one of my favourite authors is E.F. Benson and chief amongst his books the series that traces the “alarmes and skirmishes” between those two forces of nature Elizabeth Mapp and Lucia. I was drawn to his books by the BBC TV Series that brought to life the citizens of Tilling in the persons of Geraldine McEwan, Prunella Scales and Nigel Hawthorne. Though it is over 30 years old since they first appeared they are still a constant source of joy and gentle laughter.
As indeed are the Lucia novels that I have read, read again and reread a third, fourth and possibly fifth time. Though there may be great things going on in the outside world but to the residents of Tilling they are as nothing compared to the daily thrill of life in their own little, fast fading, world. Even the sending of Christmas cards became a matter of thrust and parry and tactical manoeuvrings.
The pleasant custom of sending Christmas cards prevailed in Tilling and most of the world met in the stationer’s shop on Christmas Eve, selecting suitable salutations from the threepenny, the sixpenny and the shilling trays. Elizabeth came in rather early and had almost completed her purchases when some of her friends arrived, and she hung about looking at the backs of volumes in the lending library, but keeping an eye on what they purchased. Diva, she observed selected nothing from the shilling tray anymore than she had herself; in fact, she thought that Diva’s purchases this year were made entirely from the threepenny tray. Susan, on the other hand, ignored the threepenny tray and hovered between the sixpennies and the shillings, and expressed an odiously opulent regret that there were not some “choicer” cards to be obtained. The Padre and Mrs Bartlett were certainly exclusively threepenny, but that was always the case. However, they, like everybody else, studied the other trays, so that the next morning when they all received seasonable coloured greetings from their friends, a person must have a shocking memory if he did not know what had been the precise cost of all that were sent him.
But where did the “pleasant custom of sending Christmas cards” originated?
The custom of exchanging greetings at Christmastide was an age old one and often took the form of handmade cards delivered by hand within a town and then as postal systems grew spread to family and acquaintances further afield. In England at least, it appears that the first commercial Christmas card was created in 1843. Henry Cole (left in a caricature from Vanity Fair from August 1871), as well as being a civil servant, was the chief architect of the newly modernized British postal system, a moving force behind the Albert Hall, Great Exhibition of 1851 and promoted and oversaw the building of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Needless to say he was a busy man and in 1843 felt he was too occupied to write out the personal greetings that friends expected to receive at Chistmas time so he hired John Calcott Horsley to design a “greeting card” all ready to be sent. Horsley’s design was hand-coloured and lithographed on stiff, dark cardboard and bore the greeting: A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you”.
It featured adults and children at a Christmas feast raising a glass in a toast but also bore several readily recognizable Christian symbols: sprigs of holly for chastity and ivy symbolizing the footprints that God had left as he walked upon the earth. And despite the festive atmosphere in the centre pane the receiver was reminded and encouraged to feed and cloth the poor at this time of year as an act of Christian charity.
The card proved popular and 1000 were printed and sold in London stationery shops for a shilling each. Of that original printing only two or three are known to exist today and at the most recent auction one that Cole sent to his grandmother went for £22,500 ($35,500.00). A good deal of the popularity of the card stemmed from the ease of dispatching greetings to family and friends using Cole’s newly introduced penny post. Some controversy arose when several Temperance societies complained about the tipples being enjoyed by the merry throng, particularly the little girl who is being given a sip to celebrate the Feast – however like all “bad” publicity it may well have bolstered sales.
And though we may find it odd that our friends in Tilling were buying Christmas cards to send on Christmas Eve until the Second World War there was Christmas morning postal delivery in most English towns. Canada had no such luxury however we did have the distinction of issuing the first Christmas stamp in 1898. Though without a Christmas theme – rather it glorifies a rather more temporal Kingdom – the stamp bears the inscription Xmas 1898. Legend says that when the Canadian Postmaster General William Murdock proposed a stamp to honour the “Prince” meaning the Prince of Wales, a raised eyebrow and a pointed question from Queen Victoria – who it is said never quite approved of her son – as to “which Prince” brought the quick-witted reply: Why the Prince of Peace, m’am.
It had been thought that the e-card would put a dent in the Christmas card market however last year in Great Britain alone – where Christmas cards began – £171.6 was spent on single Christmas cards. Neither Cole nor Horsley could have dreamt that those 1000 cards would lead to the avalanche of greetings that are exchanged around the world at Christmastide.
06 decembre/December – San Nicola